by Jo Freeman
1976 Democratic Convention analysis and photos.
1976 Republican Convention photos.
Published in Ms., November 1976, pp. 19-20.
Feminists at the Republican Convention claimed a major victory when they narrowly prevented conservatives from removing the Equal Rights Amendment from the Republican platform, where it has been since 1940. "We handed Phyllis Schlafly a major defeat," declared leaders of the Republican Women's Task Force, an arm of the National Women's Political Caucus.
Credit for this victory, according to NWPC Vice-Chair Betsy Griffith, should go to the Task Force leaders' political expertise. "Our major resource is talent. We are successful because we are good politicians, and know how to function in this milieu. We are less demanding, less vocal [than the Democrats] because the Party is dominated by people suspicious of outsiders. We are occasionally accused of being outsiders, but our credentials improve all the time."
Task force leaders' credentials were good enough for them to have the support of influential Republicans in the Ford administration, and they in return were active supporters of Ford's renomination. Both the campaign and the Task Force felt that feminist energies could best be used on the ERA -- which the President has strongly supported -- rather than on abortion or rules changes, the two other issues which could have commanded feminist time and energy.
Therefore Task Force leaders Pat Bailey and Betsy Griffith sat through endless Rules Committee debates, but made no attempt to urge changes they desired which would clarify the Party's obligations to include more women in the delegations. Bailey explained later that "We backed off from some of the things we wanted to do in the Rules Committee to help Ford."
They backed off from action on the abortion issue for the same reason. An antiabortion plank originally proposed by Senator Robert Dole (Kans.) was included in the platform by a 13-to-1 subcommittee vote and was debated in the full committee, but not voted on. A few Task Force members worked hard for sufficient signatures on a minority plank to strike the antiabortion language, which was defeated on the convention floor by a close voice vote. But they carefully avoided mention of the Task Force or the ERA while doing so in order not to confuse the two issues. White House counsel Bobbie Kilberg said the Task Force's dissociation from abortion was "politically wise. They would not have had Ford's support if they had supported abortion. The ERA was the only thing there were resources for."
The resources available were of a different nature from those employed by the Democratic feminists, reflecting both the different access feminist leaders have to their Party decision makers, and the different style of the two parties. Political scientist Pat Hanratty, an NWPC board member and convention volunteer, described this difference: "Democratic politics are loud, consensual, and mass-oriented. Republican politics are quiet, closed, and elitist."
Task Force leaders acquired their political experience working in the Party and on Capitol Hill. They knew that the Party appreciated a professionally run machine, and viewed "special interest group" as a dirty word. Their influence depended on who they knew, not on who they represented; it did not come from masses of volunteers but from knowing where the leverage points were and how to use political information to apply pressure.
To gain much of this information they invited members of the platform committee to have private breakfasts every day with them and with platform committee member Representative Millicent Fenwick (N.J.), a woman of quiet, aristocratic bearing who personifies Republican feminism as Bella Abzug does that of the Democrats. After the ERA was defeated, 8 to 7, in the subcommittee, the approximately 20 women who breakfasted with Task Force leaders helped them identify the 17 undetermined votes in the 106 member platform committee. Background checks were done on the 17, and each was contacted by those influential Republicans likely to sway their votes. In addition, Ford was persuaded to make a strong public statement of support and to order his floor leaders to twist a few arms in the platform committee. The ERA was retained in the platform 51 to 47.
The battle was not yet over, as Frances Wideman of Alabama, leader of the anti-ERA forces, threatened to file a minority report and bring the ERA to the floor of the convention. To do this she needed 27 signatures from platform committee members. She only got 22, because the Reagan campaign did not want to make a stand on this issue, and Reagan's supporters on the platform committee followed his wishes.
Nonetheless, the Task Force was concerned that the presence of feminists with less acceptable credentials than their own might alienate some of their support. When National Organization for Women President Karen DeCrow and board member Arlie Scott came to Kansas City for a NOW sponsored ERA demonstration 24 hours before the minority report filing deadline, they met with Task Force members to offer their support. They were told there was no role for NOW at this convention, the very name was anathema to Party conservatives, and association with it might hurt the ERA. While DeCrow and Scott felt the Task Force view was "naive," they respected their wishes and left.
Despite this concern with image, the Task Force did not depend on moral suasion to gain its votes, and does not feel such tactics hold much hope for future success of the ERA. After the convention was over Pat Bailey concluded: "The kinds of problems we have faced here are the same as those we face in the unratified states. We did not wage battle on the merits of the issue. The time for education on the ERA is over. We waged a purely political battle here. We did not say vote for the ERA because it is right to do so, but because it was politically necessary. People in the legislatures must now be made to realize that they will have to vote for it because it is politically necessary -- for them -- that they do so."
Republican Women's Task Force